Have the Dallas Cowboys achieved defensive versatility?

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - AUGUST 13: Running back Jonathan Ward #29 of the Arizona Cardinals reacts after a rush against cornerback Israel Mukuamu #38 of the Dallas Cowboys during the second half of the NFL preseason game at State Farm Stadium on August 13, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, ARIZONA - AUGUST 13: Running back Jonathan Ward #29 of the Arizona Cardinals reacts after a rush against cornerback Israel Mukuamu #38 of the Dallas Cowboys during the second half of the NFL preseason game at State Farm Stadium on August 13, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys have struggled to consistently be a top 10 defensive DVOA team over the last decade. The team has gone through a multitude of defensive coordinators and philosophies in that span featuring defenses “too complex”, incredibly disorganized, undisciplined, and at times very predictable.

With a very bad defense last year resulting in Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula getting the boot, the team’s front office approached this draft with a defense-heavy mindset. Such plans came to fruition when the team selected nine defensive prospects out of the twelve picks they had. With the pandemic creating problems for teams to meet the draft prospects, teams’ big boards were smaller and there was greater importance on drafting based on offensive and defensive schemes like never before.

With the Dan Quinn addition this offseason, the defense reverted to the once-popular Seattle Cover 3 defense. The scheme coveted longer defenders in the secondary and athletic linebackers with the range to quickly change direction and overlap routes in hook and curl zones. While the scheme has a certain mold for each position, if you saturate your team with specific players they all have the potential to get beat the same way over and over again.

Most NFL offensive minds are just too good at finding deficiencies.

So what have the Dallas Cowboys done to challenge the great offensive coordinators in this league? The team drafted the two tallest defensive backs in this draft, Nahshon Wright and Israel Mukuamu, but their first pick at the position was the 5-foot-11 Kentucky product, Kelvin Joseph, who is incredibly explosive and had his best plays from off coverage. Mukuamu himself isn’t even viewed as a cornerback by this team. Instead, he’s being used like a utility player switching between safety and cornerback.

The team drafted Micah Parsons and still took Jabrill Cox with their first fourth-round pick, one player is great at playing downhill while the other is capable of covering wide receivers in press coverage, but both have the requisite athletic ability and play strength to eventually switch roles with each other.

Rookies Chauncey Gholston and Osa Odighizuwa were two versatile defensive linemen in a class filled with fewer versatile pieces and the signings of Carlos Watkins and Terrell Basham indicate the defense wants to continue being multiple with the players on the ball.

For years the Cowboys front office was adamant about building a versatile defense while their coach was set on players filling specific roles so things weren’t super complicated. Now they have reversed course sticking to a specific scheme/coverage shell while picking players who have the athleticism to play multiple positions even if the skill set isn’t there yet.

Have the Dallas Cowboys done the “impossible” and created an incredibly versatile defense?

Why does versatility matter? When players have a specific skill set coaches tend to try and get the most out of them. When a certain player isn’t able to have a well-rounded game, offenses know how to attack them and what the defensive calls might potentially be. It’s a smaller tell within a potentially bigger tell.

In a perfect world, defensive coordinators are able to play man coverage with a single high safety (Cover 1) while allowing their pass rush to wreak havoc on the passer as much as possible. The zone defense was created to help players with lesser athletic ability to be in specific positions to make plays on the ball.

Having players with solid to very good athletic ability like Trevon Diggs, Kelvin Joseph, and Anthony Brown covering players gives them a better chance at mirroring receivers through tricky breaks and leverage-testing steps. Having longer players like Nahshon Wright, Israel Mukuamu, Diggs, and Maurice Canady severely reduce the ability for quarterbacks to complete passes as separation windows are exponentially smaller while also giving the team a chance in contested-catch situations.

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The Cowboys have multiple sets of cornerbacks and safeties to essentially do the same thing against opponents of different sizes and speeds. The linebacker core now can just as easily pick up an athletic tight end in man coverage as they can pursue ball carriers working towards the outside. The team can run a Cover 3 coverage three times in a row, but the team can now be comfortable dropping whomever they like because there is a shared belief that everyone on the field is capable of dropping in coverage or rushing the passer.

You do enough trickery and QBs start making bad reads…

When Dan Quinn says he places an emphasis on being a “fast and physical defense,” he says so knowing that players with good to very good athletic ability are game-changers with how often they can play and with where they can play. After that, the only thing that matters is the coaching staff displaying the ability to develop the technique of their talent. It’s always easier said than done, but the coaching staff is effectively mitigating a potential deficiency by drafting the players with better athletic ability.

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In all, it’s a pretty simple concept, but the human mind so easily overthinks simple things. Very good film is a welcome sight to most organizations, but by setting certain athletic benchmarks teams are simply trying to wipe out a variable. It’s possible that the Cowboys might have found good athletes with solid film at every part of the draft. That’s usually pretty rare!